Joshua Cheptegei. This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of the athlete and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

Uganda’s Joshua Cheptegei scripted a world record for the second time in less than two months, completing the 10,000 meters track race in 26:11:00 at the NN World Record Day event in Valencia on October 7, 2020. He bettered the previous record in the discipline held by Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele; 26:17.53 set in 2005. On August 14, Cheptegei had taken down another of Bekele’s world records when he finished the 5000 meters at the Wanda Diamond League meet in Monaco, in 12:35.36. Cheptegei, is the tenth man in history to hold world records for the 5000 meters and 10,000 meters concurrently, a report on the latest development available on the website of World Athletics, said.

In the women’s category, Ethiopia’s Letesenbet Gidey set a new world record in Valencia, when she completed the 5000 meters on track in 14:06.62. She improved upon the previous world record of 14:11.15 that had stood in the name of her compatriot Tirunesh Dibaba since 2008, the report from World Athletics, said. In November 2019, Gidey had been in the news for setting a new world record for women in the rarely run 15 kilometers. At the 15 kilometers race at the Zevenheuvelenloop (Seven Hills Run) in Nijmegen, Netherlands, held on November 17, she had clocked 44:21, more than a minute better than the previous world best of 45:37 Joyciline Jepkosgei set in Prague two years earlier en route to her first world record in the half marathon. Gidey is silver medalist in 10,000 meters from the 2019 edition of the World Athletics Championships.

Running in the 5000 meters, 10,000 meters and the half marathon appear to have got off to a brilliant start as global athletics recommences sports meets in the time of pandemic. Cheptegei’s 5000 meters world record from August, was a stunning reminder that notwithstanding COVID-19, lockdown and its cumulative impact on training schedules and events, athletics is alive and kicking. That performance had made him the world record holder in 5000 meters across both track and road. On February 16, 2020, he had clocked 12 minutes 51 seconds at the Monaco Run 5km. He shaved 27 seconds from the previous record of 13:18 set by Kenya’s Rhonex Kipruto en route to his 10km world record in Valencia on January 12. Interestingly, although as an international athlete he is usually based in Europe, given world affected by pandemic, Cheptegei’s training for both races – the 5000 meters in Monaco and the 10,000 meters in Valencia – was done in Uganda. News reports said that after the blistering performance in Monaco, he had gone back to Uganda and returned to set the track ablaze again in Valencia.

Letesenbet Gidey (This photo was downloaded from the athlete’s Facebook page and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended)

Weeks after Cheptegei’s new world record in the 5000 meters, three world records tumbled over September 4 and 5, 2020. Britain’s Mo Farah and Sifan Hassan of the Netherlands set world one hour-records in their respective gender categories at the Wanda Diamond League exhibition meet at the King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels, Belgium, on September 4. Farah, a multiple world and Olympic champion set a new mark of 21,330m – bettering the 2007 mark of 21,285m set by Ethiopia’s Haile Gebrselassie.  In her race, Hassan, the Dutch world 1500m and 10,000m champion, touched 18,930 meters in one hour, beating the previous mark of 18,517 meters set by Ethiopia’s Dire Tune in 2008. Around the same time, in Prague, Peres Jepchirchir of Kenya broke the women-only race world record in the half marathon. On September 5, she clocked 1:05:34 for the distance improving upon the previous record of 1:06:11 set by Netsanet Gudeta of Ethiopia at the World Half Marathon Championships in 2018. In contrast to the performances amidst pandemic in long distance running from Jepchirchir, Cheptegei, Gidey, Farah and Hasan (spanning 5000 meters to the half marathon), the marathon hasn’t yet found the gear to break fresh ground. The London Marathon of October 4, held as an elites only affair with the likes of Eliud Kipchoge and Brigid Kosgei in the field, was expected to see record breaking performance but it didn’t although it provided a couple of exciting, close finishes. It is also true that road events that managed to go ahead despite pandemic, have been very few in number compared to events hosted in the more contained ambiance of stadiums. Although the staging of the London Marathon as an elites only affair, would have brought fresh hope to road events, the momentum – amidst pandemic – has been better on the track side.

An interesting report in The Guardian pointed out that both Cheptegei and Gidey wore Nike Zoom X Dragonfly shoes for their latest record breaking performance. These shoes have spikes, carbon plate and special foam. The report said that Farah and Hasan too had worn Nike shoes capable of aiding speed when they set new world records. Although these shoe models have the approval of World Athletics, in general, advancement in shoe design has become a talking point in contemporary athletics (including the marathon), particularly in sterling performances. Also employed at these events was Wavelight pacing technology. A January 2020 article on the subject, available on the website of World Athletics, explained, “  Named Wavelight after the Mexican wave because of the similar fluid motion of the lights, the system will be used along the rail (inside of the 400m track) in which the lights will flash at an assigned pace for selected races. The innovation has two values: one to enable the athletes to better target a specific pace or target time and, secondly, to add greater value to the spectator experience.’’

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

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